“I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but I’m certainly not the dumbest. I mean, I’ve read books like The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Love in the Time of Cholera, and I think I’ve understood them. They’re about girls, right? Just kidding.” —High Fidelity, Nick Hornby
The sexiest woman I ever saw had a book in her hands. The way she chewed at her lower lip as she read; the way her forefinger made a lingering, thoughtful caress of turning over each page she finished, lead me to wonder what wild, sequestered fire burned between those covers. I hadn’t quite managed the nerve to ask before I saw her reveal the answer. She closed the paperback around her thumb, drew it in close and gazed away: her eyes without focus, dreaming. I’ve never envied another human being as much as I envied the author of that book.
Every year, trade publishers spill their ink on millions of pages, thousands of books, all destined to be embraced or go unrequited, tossed onto remainder stacks. This column aims to bring you writing worth reading, to introduce you to good company. Anything book-related is fair game, too: like book-ish podcasts, reading accompaniments, notes on the book world, and random acts of literary merit. This time, we look at four novels that dust off old books, reanimate dead authors, and play in traffic at that odd intersection where our stories tell us what we mean.
The Book of Air and Shadows
Michael Gruber (Hardcover, William Morrow, $24.95)
For every former undergrad who recalls suffering the slings and arrows of that exquisite Elizabethan torture called Shakespeare, this novel will set you on the road to recovery. Really. Nothing, it turns out, is as good a nostrum for half-remembered misery than the thrill of seeing others go through worse. Examples: A Shakespearean scholar murdered — nasty! Intellectual property attorney hunted by Russian mobsters — zounds! Film school student working at a rare bookstore — um, bad things happen to him, too (and a bit of romance). All because a lost Shakespeare play written in the Bard’s own hand may exist and lots of people are willing to kill for it. Honestly, could Shakespeare possibly have more to answer for? Gruber’s book is well-researched, fast-paced (mostly), brainy (bits) and as captivating as it is cathartic of those iambic pentameter ghosts that haunt you still. Start your rehab today. You’ll enjoy it.
The Secret of Lost Things
Sheridan Hay (Hardcover, Doubleday, $23.95)
Call me Ishmael. No — call me Rosemary Savage, transplanted Tasmanian (seriously), freshly-minted New Yorker, 18 years old, with $300 in cash and all the mad skillz to qualify me for an exciting career in — wait for it — a used bookstore! Backstory: Herman Melville writes a novel called Isle of the Cross. (True.) Publisher rejects it. (Also true.) The handwritten manuscript for same comes in for sale at Rosemary’s bookstore. (Fictional premise.) Harrowing adventure ensues. Author Hay does a yeoman job of scripting bookstore oddballs, less so on the thrilly bits. Lost Things tacks back and forth among mystery, the fate of Melville’s rejected book, and coming-of-age themes. If this one were a steak, however, I’d send it back for being just a tad undercooked.
Rebecca Stott (Hardcover, Spiegel & Grau, $24.95)
Move from the musty used book stacks to the ivy-besotted ramparts of academe and ask: What’s a little murder among scholars? Historian Rebecca Stott knows the terrain here well and in this, her first novel, pulls together an engrossing tale. A roiling witches’ brew of alchemy, mysticism, a controversial take on Sir Isaac Newton and a son’s quest to complete his mother’s work. This novel may rob you of sleep, but you may find it the most welcome and haunting thief you’ll encounter this summer.